Thursday, February 14, 2008

Marilynne and Emily

Thanks to Dave Lull for drawing my attention to this very profound post on Patrick Kurp's superb literary blog, Anecdotal Evidence - superb title too. I don't need to say anything about it except that the connection between Marilynne Robinson and Emily Dickinson is a wonderful thing.


  1. Great blog - thank you for the tip... Just read this a little lower about journalism and literature.

    `Gibbon's History and To-night's Evening Paper'
    I’ve never taken Gore Vidal seriously -- his fiction is awful, his politics childish and petulant -- but he wrote at least one sentence I remember with a twinge in that portion of my consciousness reserved for unpleasant self-knowledge:

    “After politics, journalism has always been the preferred career of the ambitious but lazy second-rater.”

    That’s the first line of the foreword Vidal wrote for The Impossible H.L. Mencken, an anthology edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers in 1991. I spent more than 20 years working as a reporter, and several more freelancing for newspapers, and can think of too many former co-workers, writers and editors, for whom Vidal’s snotty observation is an accurate diagnosis. They subscribed to a form of reverse pride about the quality of their writing. Somehow, with a boundless capacity for rationalization, they deemed good writing effete, pretentious, even sexually dubious.

    A city editor I knew wrote crime novels on the side. A friend once described him as the only man he had ever met who could swagger while seated. His character was unpleasant but his fiction was worse. Reporters photocopied choice passages – ill-written, misogynistic – and passed them around for the sake of outrage and laughs. He detested stylishness and wit in news writing; indeed, in any sort of writing. He claimed John O’Hara was the greatest American writer.

    Frank Wilson’s recent retirement as book review editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer sparked these thoughts. In my first e-mail to Frank after hearing the news, I described newspapers as “bruising” places to work. Yet, despite mediocrity and institutional chowder-headedness, good work, even superb work, gets done. To a significant degree, I learned to write by writing for newspapers – the importance of concision, accuracy and deadlines – and I’m not alone in this deferred adult education.

    I think of Mencken, of course, and A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, Whitney Balliett, Murray Kempton – all bona fide journalists, all with newspaper experience, all among the finest American writers. Some will cite an alternative list of journalist/writers -- Stephen Crane, Dreiser, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer – but they are at best second-rate. The only exceptions, and they must be heavily qualified, are Whitman and Twain. Literature and journalism are not mutually exclusive but are rarely found linked in an individual (Frank Wilson is a first-rate poet). I found an unexpected ally for such views in T.S. Eliot. In 1931, he wrote a fond memoir of Charles Whibley (1859-1930), an English literary journalist who helped promote Eliot’s early career and also wrote admiringly of Mussolini. Here’s what Eliot writes in Charles Whibley:

    “The distinction between `journalism’ and `literature’ is quite futile, unless we are drawing such violent contrast as that between Gibbon’s History and to-night’s evening paper; and such a contrast itself is too violent to have meaning. You cannot, that is, draw any useful distinction between journalism and literature merely in a scale of literary values, as a difference between the well written and the supremely well written: a second-rate novel is not journalism, but it is certainly not literature.”

    This is refreshingly common-sensical and demystifying. Literature is not magically different from journalism. The difference is one of kind, not degree. Eliot put it more elegantly:

    “Literary style is sometimes assigned almost magical properties, or is credited with being a mysterious preservative for subject-matter which no longer interests. This is far from being absolutely true. Style alone cannot preserve; only good style in conjunction with permanently interesting content can preserve. All other preservation, such as that of Swift’s or Defoe’s journalism, is due to a happy accident.”

  2. Bryan, thank you very much for alerting me to this blog. It is a revelation and has lifted my spirits wonderfully.

  3. When recently wondering what Ryamond Carver book to buy, I came across this review by Robinson in the New York Times from 1988. Is Carver worth reading? Robinson seems to think so.